A Conversation with Philosopher Paul Horwich

Several weeks ago by chance, I came upon a videoed debate between two philosophers. One from Oxford, the other from N.Y.U, (my alma mata). Despite the fact I had co-majored in philosophy and kept up a long-standing interest in the subject, I had never heard of either of these gentlemen.

But what galvanized my attention almost immediately was the striking contrast between the performative styles of each of these men. Timothy Williamson, The Wykedam Professor of Logic at Oxford, was brilliant if bullish, and professor Paul Horwich of N.Y.U. a silver-haired, silver tongued luminary of the philosophy department that currently is ranked one of the finest in the English speaking world (and who plainly had come not to fight, but to debate).

Timothy, however, had a different take. In his eyes, this was not an even match. Although he did not say it, it was apparent he did not consider his opponent to be in his class. His mission, therefore, was to point out the flaws in his opponent’s logic, to teach when he could, but to scold when necessary. Since he did not expect to learn anything from the encounter himself, it would be enough if he could squeeze in a little overdue philosophical house cleaning.

You could tell something was up, right at the start. Picked to kick off the debate, Timothy, disdaining the lectern, began striding around the stage as though staking out his intellectual terrain. You had to be there to appreciate how fiercely regal he looked: a lion marking his turf. He had yet to say anything but he was commanding the stage:

“Paul Horwich, in ‘Methaphilosophy’ his new book is saying…is saying…that everything that came before him….” The room fell silent waiting for what seemed certain to be a devastating pronouncement.


The word was delivered with the force of a missile.

“Paul Horwich is saying that traditional philosophy, (what he calls “T philosophy”), everything that has been accomplished up until now is, “RUBBISH!”

The Wykedam Professor one of the premier logicians in the world, it seems could not tolerate the enormity of the insult, while Paul Horwich, sitting quietly in his chair, seemed dismayed by the ferociousness of the outrage.

That was the moment, when weeks later I would meet with Paul Horwich for the first time, I chose to highlight:

“ I thought it set the tone for what followed. He acted as though it wasn’t a level playing field. That it was his job to point out your mistakes…”

“Oh, you picked up on that.”

I liked the compliment but was clear there had been some history between them.

“Tim and I go back a long way. We would meet, we would talk. I knew his wife and children. I’ve even stayed at his house.”

Gradually things had changed. Their philosophical differences grew greater. What once had been a promising friendship began to fizzle. It was simply not comfortable to debate someone who so strenuously opposed your every position.

Would you debate him again? I wanted to know.

“Oh yeah.”

After a year of research and interviewing one first rank academic after another, a pattern was emerging. As someone at the top of the heap, I realized, you made a point of rarely attributing the appellation “genius” to a peer. You almost never bragged, no matter how outsized your own talents were. No matter how well deserved, you reluctantly accepted even heartfelt compliments. You never — no matter how savagely attacked, how much you inwardly seethed- stooped to the level of an ad hominem attack. You took the high road, at all costs. You could be vulnerable, but vulnerability was not something you easily indulged in. As well as anyone you knew that psychopathology existed, but as a certified philosopher, it was the unexamined life that excited your interest. And when it came to interlopers or interlocutors such as your humble correspondent who’s not been fully vetted, it was proceed with due caution. Despite being in a restaurant you chose not to eat even if you were hungry, you did not drink and you did your best to stay on message.

But I had an ace. As a seasoned psychotherapist I could listen empathicly to whatever the other had to say, check my ego at the door and lose myself in the unfolding narrative. Nothing was at stake for me, so there was no reason to compete.

Academics, I realized were more interested in being respected than in being understood. Being misunderstood was part of the game. But being understood, was a trait hard to resist, and soon I would find myself invited into their circle of trust.

Paul for example, although an outstanding student, in his native England, did not know what he really wanted to study. He was interested in a general sort of way in the foundations of knowledge, so perhaps it was mathematics and physics that he should pursue. That was one reason he came to M.I.T. Another was that it was “the Thatcher era” and coming to America seemed like a sensible thing to do. So once enrolled in M.I.T. he sought out the head of a department, not only announced his intention of pursuing a career in higher mathematics and physics but specified who it was he wanted as a mentor.

“That’s not how we do things here!”

A thundering rebuke — worthy to stand along side Timothy Willaimson’s “Rubbish” — immediately followed by a point by point itemization of how he could expect to spend his time in the next two years.

“Then, if after that, you still want to pursue a path in physics and mathematics — we’ll think about it.”

Massively deflated, — “I was practically in tears” — he began to rethink his priorities. He was “all right” in math and physics “but he was ‘never going to be Einstein,”. (Neither, I wanted to say, was anybody else on the planet).

But I was beginning to understand his drift. An obviously brilliant man, with a pronounced philosophical bent, he wanted to do more than academically excel. He wanted to know the answer to the classic foundational questions — why does the world exist?…why is there something rather than nothing?… why this world and not some other?

Slowly he was being led not into physics but into the philosophy of physics, not into mathematics but into the philosophy of mathematics. It would dawn on him that perhaps it was philosophy that was his true calling:

“In philosophy, I seemed to understand everything that came my way rather quickly. I may not have agreed with it but I understood it or at least I thought I did.”

Theoretical physics was a different story. Suddenly in a reminiscent mood — leaning across the table at which we sat in the classic lower East Side bar café, ‘The Copper Still’ — he reflected:

“You know the philosophy of physics has really changed. Thirty years ago I could pretty well understand what was being written in a general sort of way. But now, now things have changed. You really have to know physics, you can’t just get by. Sometimes I get lost now.”

I mentioned two philosophers who I knew were highly regarded by the physics community mainly because of their command of technical literature: David Albert and Tim Maudlin.

“Yes, David Albert has a Phd. in theoretical physics.”

“Do you know him?”

“Oh yes. Quite Well. He’s been very, very, nice to me.”

“Do you know Tim Maudlin? He’s in your department?”

“Well yes…Not as well as David Albert.”

“Recently I saw a video by him. He’s proposing that fundamental physics be reconstituted along a new kind of projective geometry that he’s currently formulating.”

If Paul Horwith was impressed, he didn’t show it.

“He’s not a mathematician…he’s done some good work though, (on the philosophy of physics)”.

Time was passing. This was the first time in my life I had spoken up close and personal to a world class philosopher and I might as well make the most of it. So I told him about my Noam Chomsky problem: my unlimited regard for his mind that I could not reconcile with, his unbudging take no prisoners polemical style. Did he, by any chance cross paths with him during his time at M. I. T.?

Animated, he turned in his chair and pointed behind him.

“He was right down the hall!”

Anticipating my next question and knowing by now I was not likely to settle for a simple answer he elaborated.

“He’s not the way he comes across. Yes, he is very serious, but he can be nice too. I’ve seen him with graduate students. I mean he has high standards, and he always says what he thinks, but he really does want to help people. Once in a while I would get a note from him about something I had written or said that he felt was not quite right. I used to feel that maybe he was disappointed in me.”

Paul Horwich leaned back in his chair. He seemed momentarily to be enjoying his trip down memory lane with the quaint contrarian down the hall.

“You know, it was amazing. The way he spoke, always in full paragraphs. And the facts. Whatever you said he would produce so many facts. After a while you just kind of wanted to slink away. I’ve seen him do that with experts in things outside of his field: after a while he would begin to convince them in spite of their resistance.”

It was not what I wanted to hear.

“I don’t think he’s a great political theorist.”

“Well, I don’t know, I do think he’s the greatest linguist who ever lived.”

Like others I had met before, Paul Horwich was sparing in his praise. Even though the philosophy department was rated as the greatest in America, not once did he volunteer the word “genius.” The most he would offer of a distinguished colleague was “very good…he’s done some important work.” He seemed unimpressed by the fact he himself, was a highly esteemed professor in such august company. But make no mistake, he was well aware of “just how lucky I am” how many academic privileges he was privy to, simply by dint of his academic post.

Unsurprisingly, he was most forthcoming about his new book, “Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy”, a vigorous defense of the relevance and importance of Wittgenstein to today’s world.

“Wittgenstein, to a large extent has been dismissed. He doesn’t count. He is ridiculed for being out of step with the times. People are going to hate this book. I don’t care if people like me. I only care if what I say is right, and I think it’s right.”

Paul Horwich is aware that by embracing Wittgenstein’s philosophy “in Philosophical Investigations” he will be incurring the ire of some major contemporary philosophers: i.e. Timothy Willaimson, for one. It was his duty. He takes no pleasure in calling into question some of the sacred tenets of traditional philosophy (which he calls T Philosophy). By no means was he denouncing all of traditional philosophy. Certainly great works had been done (by titans such as Kant) but nevertheless there was an unacknowledged pernicious streak that ran through the main body of T Philosophy.

Exactly as Wittgenstein had taught us (to no avail) traditional philosophy had become hopelessly scientistic. By applying the rigidly reductive, quantitative methods of the physical sciences to problems for which it is not suited — far from clarifying matters — it had exacerbated them. It is scientistic not scientific. Wittgenstein’s assault against a priori theoretic T philosophy according to Horwich is correct. Truth is not an essence. It is not a property of objects in the sense that red is a property of objects. To say that statement, c-i.e, the cat is on the mat is true — is no more than to say c (the cat is on the mat). To say that c is true does not add anything of value. Seen this way, truth, far from being profound is trivial. This is the deflationary theory of truth which Paul Howrwich vigorously defends. Deflationary because, in Wittgensteins’s famous phrase, it “shows the fly the way out of the bottle” Wittgenstein, although only in his twenties, believing he had solved all of philosophy’s problems, announced his retirement. True to his word, he withdrew from Cambridge, gave away his vast inheritance and retreated to a quiet life on the countryside. He tried his hand at teaching school children.

At thirty he had written only one book. “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”, but it had revolutioned twentieth century philosophy. Wittgenstein had tried nothing less than to reduce the plenitude of the world to a logical system of cold facts, a bare bones foundation of everything we observe and experience. Nothing like it had ever been attempted. Wittgenstein was accorded cult like status. “This afternoon I met God at the train station”. Accolades continued to be heaped on the Tractatus: “The book has a haunting beauty”. No less than the great David Foster Wallace had opined, “The opening sentence of the Tractatus — ‘The world is all that is the case — is the greatest in Western Lit. ( My choice for what it’s worth would be Dickens’, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times).

Forty years ago, by chance, in the Harvard Coop, I came upon a little book by Wittgenstein, the last he had written — On Certanity. What began as curiosity became obsessional. Wittgenstein, I realized had struck a universal chord of doubt. “On Certainity” was really about uncertainity. How can we be certain that anything is certain? What is the evidence that something is certain? What is the evidence that our evidence itself is certain? It came down to trust but who do you trust?

Saying the Unsayable

The last sentence of Wittgenstein’s master work is this: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” It is one of the most famous sentences in the history of thought. Wittgenstein, the great genius of the logical and symbolic structure of language, the man who wrote more brilliantly about the “bewitchment of language” than anyone who ever lived, was drawing a curtain over the heart and soul of human discourse. He was insisting the correct, the only method in philosophy was to “say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science — something that has nothing to do with philosophy.”

As a seasoned psychotherapist, someone that has listened to tens of thousands of self narratives, from every conceivable human perspective, I have to shake my head at the superhuman, the draconian restrictiveness of Wittgenstein’s edict. From a psychodynamic perspective Wittgenstein is attempting to place a philosophical restraining order on the human spirit.

I could only wonder at the motivation for such a dehumanizing act. The answer must lay somewhere in the psyche. What I asked myself what would a psychotherapist think if he had actually encountered such a philosopher?

In a tour de force, I imagined a scenario in which an agitated Wittgenstein would consult a psychotherapist: a tour de force that became a long essay — “If Wittgenstein were a patient”, — that in turn became a chapter in my first book, “Portrait of The Artist as a Young Patient”. Here’s a brief summary:

The young philosopher entering the office would be immediately perceived as eccentric and mannered. His movements would be stiff. There would be a noticeable air of detachment about him; (indeed Wittgenstein once noted about himself — being so divorced from the mundane real world — that he is often taken for being blind!) His speech — stammering, self referential, filled with odd apercus — would seem brilliant but otherworldly.

Philosophy aside, the psychotherapist would be most struck by the interpersonal peculiarities of this man. For this would be someone who seemed incapable of getting close to another person. A man who seemed unnaturally suspicious of the underlying intentions of the other. Quick to take offense, critical to a fault; extremely argumentative. He would be someone with little empathy for the feelings of others. Even more disturbing would be his strange lack of empathy or understanding of his own turbulent emotional life. Wittgenstein paradoxically — who was a founder of analytic philosophy — showed scant interest in analyzing the wellsprings of his profound creativity.

A psychotherapist could not help but note how tortured this man was. He would observe the many ways in which he seemed to first court suffering and then justify it on the highest moral grounds; (“we should always try to be great”). He would view Wittgenstein’s moral posturing — insisting on putting himself on the front lines of the first World War to test his courage; inexplicably giving away his entire fortune of millions; abandoning philosophy at the pinnacle of his success — as an expression of moral masochism fueled perhaps by an unbearable survivor’s guilt for three older brothers who had tragically taken their own lives.

But there was more. In addition to masochism there was sadism: distubringly, during his stint as a teacher of school children Wittgenstein had been censored for reports of using corporal punishment to discipline wayward students. While it was not known what really happened, it is known that Wittgenstein’s stay as a teacher of school children did not end well. Ray monk, Wittgenstein’s great biographer “The Duty of Genius” has provided countless examples of how insensitive, willfully self-absorbed and sadistically punitive Wittgenstein could be to almost anyone — man, woman, or child who came within his crosshairs.

From this it is a short step to view Wittgenstein as someone with a morbidly exaggerated paranoid neurotic style of perceiving and relating (David Shapiro’s classic Neurotic Styles). This is a person who is blinded by details, obsessed with rules, haunted by real or imaginary impingements; under constant siege; with incredibly narrow focus, terrified of his feelings, pathologically private about his conflicted sexuality.

Now let us ask a question analogous to Freud’s famous, “How does the neurotic chose his neurosis?” How does the philosopher choose the field of study to which he will devote his life? For help we go to the emerging fields of neuro-science and neuro-psychoanalysis. As evidence, we point to the overwhelming conclusion of contemporary neuroscience, and cognitive psychology and in depth psychodynamic exploration that most of conscious reasoning is biased and unconsciously determined.

In particular we note that from the psychodynamic evidence of thousands and thousands of patients self narratives — there is no firewall in the emergent human mind against logical contradiction. As I wrote in my review of Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues, if you listen carefully to patients narrating self experience you do not hear paradox. You hear conflict. You hear one level of the mind opposing another level. You hear a kind of private civil war of ideas, (or in Christopher Bollas great phrase, Mind Against Self), you hear Freud’s famous Freudian slips in action. You hear one part of the mind judging another. You hear something for more illogical than a logical mistake. You hear how profoundly irrational the mind can be. For you observe over and over again how adept the psyche can be (via its favorite defense mechanism of denial) to addictively and endlessly repeat the same behavior somehow expecting a different outcome.

If the mind then is not a mathematical slave to Godelian logic then neither is it an algorithmic program in search of a computer. The mind is not binary. Thoughts are not binary. Qualia are not binary. Emotions are not binary. Meaning and interpretation can not be quantified. Thomas Nagel was right when he said, in the View From Nowhere, that a century from now we look back and regard the program of artificial intelligence as a gigantic mistake. The Turing Test, ever since the 1950’s has been a spectacular failure. If a sentient computer could be built from a psychodynamic perspective it would be a sociopath. The essence of human identity is authenticity not imitation, not forgery. A computer that would pass the Turing Test would be a Stepford computer.

Wittgenstein, haunted by the suicides of three older brothers, fearful that he was on the verge of going insane, clings to logic like a lifeline. If he can reduce the world — the world that is “all that is the case” — to a series of logical “musts” he will be safe, or so he thinks. If he can show the fly the way out of the bottle — then maybe he can find his way out. It can’t be done. Even a genius like Wittgenstein can’t think his way out of despair. But he doesn’t give up. He never gives up. In his second major book, Philosophical Investigations he will attempt to overhaul much of what he has done in his first book. Now instead of a foundation of unshakable logical relations there is instead a messy world of everyday language. Meaning is defined by use and use reveals itself through language games. Language games are held together not by logical “musts” but by “family resemblances”.

As a writer as well as a psychotherapist, someone who has listened to tens of thousands of patient (and non patient) self narratives, I am struck by the “fuzziness” of logic. The God like “logical must” so honored by professional logicians is almost never heard. What is heard instead is something akin to William James’ famous “stream of thought”. Sentences ramble, “take flight”, halt, take stock of where they have come from, look anxiously ahead to the “penumbra” of meaning. They are not constructed like miniature watches of innumerable parts all working in concert. Logic has only one draft. Sentences have many. Logic is only one tool. Metaphor, analogy, gestures, behavior, subtext, sonic, tonal signals are other communicative tools.

None of which is meant to detract from Wittgenstein’s genius. When I offered my opinion that Wittgenstein, regardless of the degree to which he may be currently out of fashion is “immortal like Kafka and Freud” he entirely agreed.

What then is so special about Wittgenstein? Well, here among thousands of examples is one that I particularly like (from Philosophical Grammar). Wittgenstein is presenting his yard stick “conception of truth”. Propositions are like yard sticks being laid against certain claims of reality. Wittgenstein is considering what meaning is to be attributed to the zero marker? He concludes with this startling remark: “Saying, for example, there is no money in your bank account doesn’t mean there are no roses in your account. Wittgenstein, if I understand him is saying there is no universal “not space”. There are only specific absences as dictated by the logical form of the language game in which it appears. No one in their right mind would ever say, “there are no roses in my bank account.” But that is the point. The “bewitchment of language” which creates the crossed metaphors can occur very deep in the linguistic unconscious. It is the task of the analytic philosopher by exposing the entanglement, to show the fly the way out of the bottle.

I don’t know to what extent Paul Horwich would find these psychodynamic reflections relevant to a study of Wittgenstein. I do know that during our two and one half hour conversation he could not have been more sensitive and empathic to my feelings. It was clear though it was time for him to go. His seven year old son and wife were waiting for him. As always, I gave him a surprise gift: a copy of my book, “God and Therapy, What we believe when no one is watching.” This time, however I included a copy of the paperback edition of my first book, “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Patient.” I put a bookmark just before the chapter titled, “if Wittgenstein were a Patient.” (The only thing I ever wrote about Wittgenstein).

Seemingly the philosopher could not have been more delighted.

“Look at this,” he said, beaming.

Then he was off to see his wife and son. Which I think we could surely both agree was more important than logic.

Gerald Alper

Author, God and Therapy

What We Believe When No One is Watching.

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